Friday, June 18, 2010

How About A New BP Spokesperson?

About 60 days, too late, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward, is being replaced as chief oil spill spokesperson. Managing Director Bob Dudley has been tapped to assume that role.

At the Institute for Crisis Management, we believe strongly, there is a time and a place for the top executive of a company in crisis, to face the cameras and the public and speak on behalf of his or her organization. It should happen relatively early, and be carefully controlled, and be more of an opportunity for the top person to make a statement, not to be hammered with questions that he/she most likely does not have answers to.

Then that executive should go “run” the operation, and leave the day-to-day, on-going spokesperson role to someone high up in the management ranks, but with more operational experience and public credibility.

The major airlines perfected this approach years ago, when they developed their crisis communication plans for airplane crashes. A day-to-day spokesperson, with plenty of training and experience, is immediately assigned to be the “public face and voice” of the organization.

Meanwhile, the CEO is put on the first airplane the company can commander and flown to the airport nearest the crash site, where he briefly appears before a mob of reporters. He expresses his sympathy for the victims and their families, pledges his personal and company commitment to work with all investigating agencies to determine what went wrong and then re-introduces the “on-going” spokesperson to answer any questions the company may have answers for, and excuses himself to go “manage” the crisis.

This is a tried and true approach and there are very few exceptions, in my experience. There are some things only the CEO can do, and if he/she is busy fending off reporters, he/she cannot do the leadership/decision making things.

But just as significantly, IF the CEO misspeaks, there is no one left to step in and fix it. That’s what BP has faced, over and over again for nearly 60-days.

There is also a cultural gap between the leadership of BP and the American audience. We experience this frequently with our clients that are European or Asian. They don’t think the same way Americans do and they don’t share the American belief that management should be sharing information with their workers , customers and partners.

And they don’t speak the same. Their colloquialisms are frequently misinterpreted by Americans, just as an American from the deep South is sometimes misunderstood by a Yankee or vice versa.

Not only has Tony Hayward been criticized for his British way of expressing himself, The Swedish Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, set off a firestorm when he used the expression “small people” at the White House, when he probably meant “everyday folks.”

Now, the new spokesman for BP is former president and CEO of Russia’s third largest oil and gas company. I can only imagine how he is going to be greeted by Americans.

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